Former Sackville firefighter Kevin Scott says he was speechless when he heard about the town’s plan to scrap an independent grievance procedure in the bylaw that governs Sackville Fire & Rescue.
“Basically, they’ve flipped me the bird,” he said today in a telephone interview.
Scott was among 17 volunteer firefighters who resigned from the department in recent years complaining of bullying, harassment, favouritism and persistent safety violations.
After Scott got permission from other firefighters to release their resignation letters along with his own, Warktimes ran a series of stories prompting the town to hire the Montana Consulting Group to conduct a workplace assessment of the fire department and recommend changes that have never been made public.
“I don’t know how many people knew how hard it was for us to come forward with our stories hoping that something would change so that firefighters had a voice and would be heard,” Scott said.
He was referring to a proposed new bylaw presented last night to Sackville Town Council that drops the grievance procedure in the old bylaw, one that was never actually implemented, and substitutes a complaints process that would require volunteer firefighters to complain to Fire Chief Craig Bowser and then to Chief Administrative Officer Jamie Burke.
Many former and current firefighters told Warktimes last year that both the Chief and the CAO had ignored their complaints and that appeals to former mayors and town councillors had also gone unheeded.
During last night’s council question period, CAO Jamie Burke said the term “grievance procedure” is unionized language.
“The fire department is not unionized,” he explained. “So, we’ve used more relative and common-sense language that applies to our department in terms of how we operate.”
When asked why firefighters could not appeal to their elected representatives, Burke said he hoped they would follow the procedures outlined in the bylaw.
“Ultimately, if an employee felt that they were being treated unfairly, they have due process under a workplace harassment and violence policy that if a complaint is found against me, it goes to the mayor,” he added.
Meantime, several current firefighters have also expressed concern about the new complaint procedure as well as restrictions on speaking to the media and the use of social media such as Facebook.
The new bylaw, which is expected to be given first reading next Tuesday, says that any requests for information or comment from the media must be referred to the Fire Chief and that firefighters are subject to the town’s social media use policy which bans any commentary that would reflect badly on how the town is run.
Kevin Scott, who now volunteers with the fire department in Point de Bute, says the $27,500 Montana report isn’t going to help Sackville’s firefighters.
“As the Montana recommendations continue to come out, people will see that the majority of them give more power to the Chief and CAO and less to the firefighters themselves,” he predicts.
“Instead of gaining a voice, they’re losing their voice.”
Fire Dept. updates
Sackville firefighters have long complained that they’re paid less than minimum wage for their work during emergency calls.
Treasurer Michael Beal reports that they’re paid between $12 and $14 per hour while the department’s secretary receives an additional stipend of $1,000 per year and the deputy chiefs receive an additional stipend of $4,000 per year on top of their hourly rates.
He says these rates haven’t been raised since 2014, but this year’s town budget provides for significant increases retroactive to January 1st.
Beal adds the exact amounts will be known soon when they’re presented to council for its approval.
Meantime, Chief Craig Bowser says new recruits should be joining the department soon once their paper work is completed.
At the moment, there are 34 firefighters on the roster, well below the full strength of 43.